Looking ahead: Will Washington do real work in 2011?

 @ibtimes on January 02 2011 1:04 PM

Predictions are, by their nature, uncertain. Politics is, as history teaches, full of surprises. So predictions about politics have to be taken with a good amount of salt.

One prediction that should hold true for American politics in 2011 is that the unexpected will happen and, in some cases, what happens will be significant.

Look at what happened in January 2010. Republican newcomer Scott Brown won the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, triggering surprise bordering on shock. Not only was it a cautionary tale for the Martha Coakleys of the world to take nothing for granted. The election of Scott Brown gave Senate Republicans the leverage they needed to stymie a large portion of President Obama's legislative agenda.

If not for Brown's election in January, Republicans would never have had the clout to bargain for an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the nation's wealthiest two percent, which they successfully bargained for in December.

Funny, isn't it, how both Republicans and Democrats are calling the tax cut plan that Senate Republicans cornered Obama and the Democrats into endorsing a victory. Not everyone is so sanguine.

Tax cutters and would-be stimulators may try to call the deal a victory. But as for the rest of us, we get to look our children in the eye and explain how our nation just added another $1 trillion to their tab, said Maya MacGuiness, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

MacGuiness points out that, while approving tax cut extensions that will deny the federal government the revenue it needs to begin dealing with the ballooning deficit and debt, neither side has put forth a plan to put the nation back on the path to fiscal stability.

But by at least March, when the current continuing resolution keeping the government operating expires, our lawmakers will again have to deal with the budget.

It is easy to predict that this will be a daunting task. It is not so easy to say whether or not the lawmakers will actually take up the task or find another way to kick the fiscal can down the road.

Alan Simpson, the former Republican Senator who co-chaired the presidential commission on addressing the deficit and the debt, made several predictions. He predicted the commission's work would be ignored. So far, he's right on that. He predicted that the budget crunch would cause lawmakers to remember the commission's recommendations.

That will probably happen. The recommendations will probably be mentioned in Washington, sometime in the spring. Whether the recommendations will get past the mentioning stage -- in 2011, that is - is pure speculation.

Simpson's third prediction - that if the nation does not seriously face its fiscal crisis and coming fiscal nightmare in a timely fashion, the nightmare will arrive - appears disturbingly accurate.

If lawmakers do not address this preponderant issue of American politics and policy but, as MacGuiness said, choose instead to continue borrowing hand over fist and using the weak economy as an excuse not to offset any costs or enact a debt reduction plan, no one should be surprised when credit markets cry 'enough!'

And that would bring about a very unhappy ending to the borrowing binge that it appears we are still on, she said.

Such grownup statesmanship and genuine concern for the future welfare of the nation as members of the debt commission displayed was highly uncharacteristic of Washington politics, MacGuiness said.

Several former members of Congress, voted out of office, have publicly commented on how difficult it was to try to do the people's business in a polarized setting. The House of Representatives, although ruled by a Democratic majority, could not pass one major budget bill. The Senate was constantly hamstrung by Republican filibuster threats. As a result, the Fiscal Year 2011 budget has been punted into Calendar Year 2011, into March, when a more polarized Congress will take it up.

The House will have a Republican majority in 2011. House GOP leaders, Speaker-designate John Boehner, R-OH and soon-to-be Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, are saying that jobs for Americans is their number one priority. They have yet to produce a plan for job creation, and they appear much more prepared to attack the Obama healthcare overhaul, most of which has yet to take effect.

Cantor has called the healthcare reform unconstitutional and untenable.

When something isn't working, there is never any shame in starting over, Cantor said. The majority of Americans are asking that we start over on healthcare reform, and that is why the new Republican House in January will pass a clean repeal of Obamacare.

And if it does, the Democrat-controlled Senate will quash it. Even if some version of repeal miraculously got through the Senate, the President would veto it.

By trying to repeal healthcare reform, Republican lawmakers will run smack into gridlock. There will be a great deal of name-calling, of declaring what the American people want, and wasting time, while job creation is left behind, and fiscal responsibility is left further behind.

With control of the House comes control of the House committees. Republicans will now be in key leadership positions and will be armed with subpoena power. It does not take a Nostradamus to foresee that there will be investigations of government departments, whether for actual wrongdoing, perceived wrongdoing, longtime political grudges or political sabotage aimed at the 2012 elections.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, long an annoyance to Democrats because of his repeated calls for probes of government activities and his aggressive, confrontational style, will now be chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and will likely move in Democratic eyes from annoyance to royal pain.

Issa has indicated he will launch investigations into the President's stimulus spending, the TARP program, the treatment of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and other areas.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-MI, will be chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and he is already setting his investigative sights on the Environmental Protection Agency and its new rules governing the emission of greenhouse gases.

Investigations can get to the bottom of real wrongs. They can also degenerate into witch hunts, which may be politically pleasing to some interests, but amount to a waste of time and taxpayer money.

A spate of Congressional investigations of the Obama administration will contribute to polarization of the parties, policy gridlock and a shift of the focus from the public's business to the 2012 elections.

It also remains to be seen what kind of solidarity the Republicans will be able to maintain. There are radical conservative ideas circulating in the new Congress that not all Republican lawmakers share. Will zeal make practical compromise impossible even within the Republicans Party?

An accurate prediction is that Boehner will have his hands full, and his qualities as a leader will be tested on a daily basis.

It is also a sure thing that Democrats will be as merciful to Boehner as Boehner was to Pelosi. Lawmakers talk all the time about bipartisanship to benefit constituents. All that talk produced little bipartisanship in 2010 and is likely to produce less in 2011. Although not publicly trumpeted, vengeance is a much more active ingredient.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, the Senate Minority Leader, may be looking at a harder job than Boehner.  This year, the Republican Senate minority played a politically effective game of blocking and stalling Democratic projects because they had sufficient numbers, when they stood together, to deny the majority the filibuster-proof 60 votes needed to bring bills to the floor.  This year, the Republicans will have 47 Senators. They should be stronger against the majority plans.

But at least four of those new GOP Senators are tea party-endorsed conservatives and have a good many ideas - like eliminating the Departments of Education and Energy and doing away with budgetary earmarks - that Senate Republicans are not anxious to back or even talk about.

The Senate's tea party conservatives - none of whom was endorsed by McConnell during the elections - could decide to work together for their conservative goals. They could form a bloc in the Senate, having just enough votes to swing a matter - or, just as importantly, threaten to swing a matter -- to the Republicans or the Democrats, depending on whether McConnell and the GOP give them what they want.

McConnell will also be looking over his shoulder at Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, who has championed tea party conservatives and has positioned himself to be their de facto leader.

Another senator to watch is Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, fresh off her historic write-in campaign victory over tea party candidate Joe Miller. DeMint and other Republicans criticized her and left her for politically dead. She may want to pay them back. She's already crossed the aisle to vote with the Democrats several times since winning the contested election.

On the Democratic side, President Obama appeared, as the year came to an end, to regain political strength and momentum. But a good deal of that was the direct result of giving Republicans the extended tax cut they wanted. Obama's skills as a compromiser and one who gets things done will certainly be put to the test in 2011.

If he can move his agenda forward against the threat of gridlock, and while his administration is being probed by committees, he will go a long way towards securing a second term.

There is also foreign policy. China will continue to rise and the U.S. will continue to try not to sink. The war in Afghanistan will continue to be terribly important, for the people and the families directly involved, and for the future of that nation and the international prestige of this one. But, as James Lindsay, director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, the war is not a hot political topic.  

The public is not focused on events overseas, he said, noting that the domestic economy is what's on everyone's mind. And while the public is not enamored with Afghanistan policy right now, it is not particularly passionate in its opposition.

Looking at the politics going forward-and on January 5 Republicans take control of the House of Representatives-Republicans tend to be much more supportive of Afghanistan, Lindsay continued. So the President is going to find that to the extent that he wants to keep troops in Afghanistan, he will find substantial support, at least on the House side of Capitol Hill.

The economy, of course, is key. The Democrats lost the 2010 elections primarily because the nation was close to 10 percent unemployment. If that does not change, they will likely lose the next election. If the glacially slow recovery does pick up speed and people begin returning to work, things could turn around for the Democrats and Obama could be the next Comeback Kid.

That, however, is not a prediction, but simply a possibility.

As said, politics is full of surprises. Who knows, our lawmakers may wake up to the fiscal crisis and actually address it in meaningful way. Or they may succumb to politics and irresponsible finances as usual. We shall see. And, if we are lucky, we will know what we are seeing.

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